BEYOND SPIRITUALITY James Coley, North Carolina

Men talk about Bible miracles because
there is no miracle in their lives.
Cease to gnaw that crust. There is ripe
fruit over your head.
—Henry David Thoreau
If I were asked to write a short identity statement for our Movement, I
would say that Ethical Culture is a
religious community dedicated to
the cultivation of moral values and
social progress. I see Ethical Culture
as religious, but also as a religion
beyond religion. It is of a fundamentally new kind. We do not have to
look or sound like other religious
communities, or use their vocabularies. We can surpass all of that, make
a clean break with the supernaturalism of traditional religions, and
draw our words instead from the
vocabulary of ethics.
I define a religious community as
one that binds people together
around an ultimate concern. The
origin of the word “re-ligion” seems
to be the idea of binding again or
binding strongly, and the concept of
an ultimate concern comes from
Paul Tillich, a scholar of religion.
However, as I see it, the ultimate
concern in Ethical Culture is ethics,
or moral values. This is the common
ground that unites us, not theology
or spirituality.
Sigmund Freud identified three main
purposes religions serve. They give
people a worldview, a code of ethics,
and emotional comfort. Let us call
these three things religious aspirations. As I understand Ethical Culture, it is perhaps unique among religious communities in that it helps
people achieve their religious aspirations in the way they choose, rather
than laying down orthodoxy, or
even relying very much on traditional religious symbols or sources.
Although our community is centered
on ethics, we do not prescribe a particular code of ethics. Also, Ethical
Culture does not deliver one readymade worldview, as most religions
do. Instead, it provides a variety of
talks and discussions, and other
forms of information and intellectual
stimulation, to help individuals construct their own worldviews. It is
fundamentally a forum for different
views, assisting people in their own
religious searches, their own attempts to satisfy their religious aspirations. It is a religion without a
creed, and a “big tent.”
But we need something more than
an intellectual forum — more, indeed, than the use of the intellect —
both in life and in Ethical Culture.
We need a sense of inner peace and
emotional strength in the face of
life’s challenges and tragedies. In
other words, we seek the inspirational. Ethical Culture helps people
achieve this religious aspiration by
providing many different approaches, including music and other
art forms that inspire us, often more
effectively than words and discussions. It is here that the word
“spirituality” might be brought into
the conversation. Some say that
there are no other words that can
replace it, but it seems to me that the
w o r d s “ i n s p i r a t i o n ” a n d
“inspirational” can usually do the
job, and in a way that is more clearly
consistent with a worldview many of
us hold, naturalistic humanism.
I am a humanist. Furthermore, I believe in naturalism, the view that
everything, including the origin of
the universe and all life, is a natural
process. This worldview is, in turn,
based on rationalism. For me, this
entails a rejection of spirituality.
Those who seek inspiration through spirituality
are certainly part of Ethical Culture. Others, myself included

, have found inspiration
and meaning in life, as well as peace
of mind, through the rejection of,
and the overcoming of the need for,
the transcendent or the spiritual.
Although Ethical Culture is in the
tradition of religious humanism, I
believe there is room enough under
our big tent for us “secular” humanists, as well.
Some might see no conflict between
spirituality and naturalism. I think
this is largely a matter of the redefinition of this controversial word,
“spirituality.” In my view, such traditional religious words as spirituality,” “theism,” and “faith” cannot easily be defined to make them consistent with naturalistic humanism and
its rationalistic basis. For example,
“faith” is simply a euphemism for
closed-mindedness. It means belief
in something without justification by
reason, evidence or common sense.
When people say you need faith in
life what they mean is that you need
hope, or a hopeful or optimistic attitude. That is true, but faith is one
thing and hope is another.
There are some in Ethical Culture
who are involved in what I call the
Reclamation Project, or reclamationism. The basic idea is to take traditional religious language, including
prominently the word “spirituality,”
and to redefine and reclaim it for our
purposes. Another religious movement, Unitarian Universalism, has
already pursued this quite successfully, and I doubt that it is a good
(Continued on page 5)

growth strategy for us to mimic or be
seen as a junior partner or auxiliary to
that movement.
I am not very interested in taking part
in this project. I want us to rescue the
phrase “moral values” from the Religious Right, and this is of greater concern to me than redefining the word
“spirituality” or other traditional religious words. I want us to talk about
virtue, duty, right and wrong, good
and evil, and about moral ideals.
That does not mean, of course, that I
think we should be intolerant of platforms, essays and the like by people in
Ethical Culture who speak and write
about spirituality. Under my conception of our movement as a forum for
different worldviews, codes of ethics,
and sources of inspiration, I defend
their right to do so.
My friend Curt Collier, the leader at
Riverdale-Yonkers, recently published
an article in his society’s newsletter,
reprinted in Dialogue, entitled “Five
Spiritual Practices to Save the Soul of
America.” They are courage, kindness,
compassion, honesty and equality. I
see this as a strange application of the
term “spiritual.” These five practices
are important, of course, but courage,
kindness, compassion and honesty are
moral virtues, and equality is a moral
ideal. Why, in Ethical Culture, do we
have to recategorize these moral, ethical qualities as spiritual things? Curt,
of course, has every right to express
this idea; in the forum of Ethical Culture he should be heard. But so should
those of us who want no part of reclamationism.
I see no need to use traditional religious language in speaking about ethics. According to the late Bernard Williams, a philosopher at Cambridge
University, liberal Christians would
tell him that when people say that Jesus is alive, they are really struggling
to say in religious language that there
is a love for humanity that endures.
Williams pointed out that this worthwhile thought could easily be said in
the following way: “There is a love for
humanity that endures.” When we
mean inspiration, we can say
“inspiration.” When we are concerned
about inner peace and meaning in life,
we can call them by their names. We
can call the sublime “sublime.”
Among the many dictionary definitions of “spiritual” and “spirituality”
there is an explicit contrast to the
physical, the bodily, and the corporeal.
There is no denying that these words
are traditionally tied up with a history
of belief in spirits, ghosts and imagined
realms of existence beyond the natural
However, those engaged in the Reclamation Project insist, quite correctly,
that there is a lot of semantic elasticity
in these words, as well as in the words
“religion” and “sacred,” etc. Words can
and sometimes should be redefined,
and flexibility is needed to allow for
stipulated meanings to serve certain
purposes; I do not begrudge others if
they wish to redefine “spirituality” as,
for example, a sublime concern for
higher moral qualities.
We are free to use the term in new
ways, but we are also free to apply its
original meaning. Why do this? Because the need for spirituality in its
traditional sense is something people
should seek to overcome; it has too
much supernatural baggage. If you
once believed in a god but no longer
do, holding on to spirituality may be
part of an attempt to get back some of
the same feelings that this belief gave
you. It is like a Nicorette patch for
people trying to quit theism.
The emotional significance of the word
“spirituality” is partly the suspicion
that there is something that transcends the physical, and that recognition of this transcendence is necessary
for us to realize our religious aspirations because there is something inferior about this world. This is well represented in the Christian doctrine of
contemptus mundi, or “contempt for the
I reject this because, inspired by the
writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, I see
nature – the physical world – as profoundly meaningful and sublimely
beautiful in itself. We are limited, I
believe, in our ability to appreciate its
meaning and beauty if we are distracted by the sense that there must be
something transcendent.
Talk of spirituality is also entangled
with the idea that we are really spirits
or souls. I think we are passionate –
and sometimes compassionate – creative and smart animals and that we
should understand and accept ourselves as such.
So this is the underlying philosophical
objection I have to spirituality: It
represents a residual metaphysical desire for some world beyond this one, or
for the soul. This desire is futile, and
the cure for it is thus to overcome the
desire. Once we have done so, we see
this world, as well as ourselves, in a
whole new light.
To those who want to hold on to spirituality, I say: Cease to gnaw that crust.
There is ripe fruit over your head.
Adapted from a platform address
delivered in New York in April. M


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